February 27, 2011

Greenhouse Mecca - A visit to The Lyman Estate

The Camellia's are in full bloom this month, at the 200 year old greenhouses at the Lyman Estate, a half hour west of Boston.

View from the service entrance, of some of the oldest greenhouses in America at the Lyman Estate, in Waltham, MA.
Camellia's in the Camellia house at the Lyman Estate. February and March is the peak blooming season for Camellia in New England ( in greenhouses, since they cannot be grown outdoors here).

Today we visited the Lyman Estate, which is one of the properties today managed by Historic New England, and it is open to the public year round. One of the best times to visit is in late winter, when their famous Camellia collection is blooming. Historically important for many other reasons, for people like us who keep home greenhouses, the estate holds a noteworth record of having perhaps the oldest greenhouse in America.

The entire greenhouse complex was built over the span of the nineteenth Century, far before electricity and furnaces. In the UK and Europe, early greenhouses were still being perfected, with primitive glazing systems, complex heating systems using everything from manure to heated air which came from coal and wood fired stoves ( early greenhouses were even called Stove houses).

On the Lyman estate, there is a well known older pit house, which most likely is the oldest greenhouse structure in the United States. It was featured in a rather unsuccessful yet collectable book from the early 20th Century entitled Winter Flowers in Greenhouse and Sun Heated Pits by Katheryn S. Taylor, which is one of my favorite books on keeping a cold greenhouse ( you must track one down if you are ever to grow such plants in the north!).
Images from Kathryn S. Taylor's books on Sun Heated Pit's showing the old pit house at the Lyman Estate when it was still in use.
Today, you can see the same pit house in the back, covered with plastic while it is being repaired. It most likely is the oldest greenhouse in America.

The Grapery with 200 year old vines of Muscat grapes.

Cast iron heating pipes keep the Grapery just warm enough for the fancy grape varieties to winter over.

In 1804, the Lymans began building a new greenhouse system, starting with a ‘Grapery’, which was heated by a boiler in the new ‘English style” popular at Kew, with pipes, glass and brick walls that could hold in the radiant heat from the sun where they could grow fancy Muscat grapes which required protection from New England’s harsh winters.

Grape vines are trained on wires that lead the vines along the panes of glass. This greenhouse must be cozy in the summer with the canopy of leaves.

Mr. Lyman also collected grape varieties from his business trips to England, bringing back via ship Black Hamburg grape cuttings  from the Royal Greenhouses at Hampton Court, to grow on trellises that elevated the vines near to the glass, these vines are still alive today. Green Muscat of Alexandria grapes were a popular table grape in the late 1800’s, and they are golden colored, with a brownish bloom, and extremely sweet.
The grape vines are just starting to come out of their dormancy.

The long greenhouses are actually lean-to's, which take advantage of a southern exposure. Backed with a brick wall which retains heat, the system is still efficient, even today.

For those of us who continue to cultivate plants in New England in a cold greenhouse, we have Theodore Lyman to thank, for in 1793 Mr. Lyman, who was a wealthy Boston merchant in the East India and China trades, constructed a home for his family in Waltham, Massachusetts where he not only built an English-style estate, complete with open fields, ponds, kitchen gardend and south facing wall on which to grow espaliered fruit trees, he also built America’s first true ‘glasshouse’, a bark-heated pit house, which remains to this day an active greenhouse.

The main entrance to the greenhouses with a granite gate

Inside, the windows are still original, this one is in the hot wall, and separates two of the greenhouses.

By 1820, another glasshouse was completed, a  lean-to solar room which became the ‘Camellia House” and in 1840 a larger wood span greenhouse with a multi-level floor was added which connected the Grapery and the Camellia House. These classic glass and wood greenhouses continued to be used reaching a peak in 1930 when they housed cut flowering plants for the estate, and they remained private until 1952 when the entire estate became a museum.
The idea of a hot wall, is still relevant today.

The Camellia house is kept cooler, with temperatures near 40 degrees F. Some of the Camellia trees are over 100 years old, with many growing in wooden tubs. Other cool greenhouse plants in the Camellia house include many azaleas, cool growing orchids like Dendrobium kingianum varieties, as well as Clivia.
Cold growing azaleas, orchids and clivia grow in mid-winter against the warmth of the 200 year old brick wall.

It’s interesting to compare the technology of 1820 with the values of today, especially in light of the new oil crisis and energy concerns in our over-populated world. In many ways, we have lessons to learn from our past, including the fact that the idea of ‘Grape Houses’, which used the ‘latest technology’ of the time, maximizing the use of solar heat by constructing a glass solar house against a brick wall ( which is 425 feet long!), which can not only hold heat from the sun, but a wall which has flues built into it where warm air can pass through from a wood stove built at the end, in many ways, the logic and smarts of our early Americans continue to make sense today. These ‘hot walls’ are worth considering if one is thinking about building a greenhouse or solar room today.

The brick 'hot wall' which has flues built into it so that heated air could pass through it. Today, it is shaded by a massive American Beech tree.

Various doors and cubby entrances to the greehouses and furnace rooms all dating back to the early 1800's make a visit to the Lyman estate like stepping into the past. I could only imagine what it was like in the 1830's walking into a hot greenhouse in February full of Camellia species brought over by ship from China or European collections, as well as Jasmine, Violets and pineapples.

Looking back toward the carriage houses at another massive glasshouse.

Many cool loving orchids grow in the Camellia house. These are plants that would not have been grown by the Lymans, but they enjoy the same conditions as Camellia.


  1. Yeah, more greenhouse posts. I saw The Great Vine at Hampton Court back in Jan 2005, impressive. The gardens were not too shabby for January either. There's something about greenhouses surrounded by winter, but containing a whole other season inside. I know it's just simple science, but it still is impressive.

  2. That's a beautiful greenhouse. It looks a lot like the one used in the Harry Potter movies doesn't it?

    - conservatories prices webmaster

  3. nice post I like your site very well and continue to do so. I have brokemark your site.
    DIY Conservatories


It's always a good thing to leave a comment!